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Keene looks at community power program

As part of its efforts to transition entirely to renewable energy by 2050, Keene is exploring a concept called “community power,” which would make the city the default electricity provider for its residents.

According to City Planner Mari Brunner, a community power program allows a municipality to purchase power from the market in order to supply it to both residential and commercial customers. Brunner said the concept has been permitted in New Hampshire for less than a year, with the governor signing it into law in August, but it has been known to save other communities a great deal of money.

“There are a lot of advantages to doing it that way,” Brunner said Tuesday. “Because utilities are locked into a certain timing when they can go out to bid … usually municipalities can get better rates than the utility. One thing we’re really excited about is the possibility to offer electricity to customers at a lower rate.”

Under this plan, the city would go out to bid and purchase electricity on the market. Brunner explained that the program would take an “opt-out” format, so customers who don’t wish to purchase electricity from the city could still buy from their preferred provider.

The state’s law requires that any plan to shift to community power be decided by the local legislative body — in Keene’s case the City Council, according to Clean Energy NH, a statewide advocacy group for renewable power. Existing providers would still deliver power and run transmission and distribution systems.

The programs can also be designed to generate additional revenue to cover administrative costs or be reinvested, according to Clean Energy NH.

Brunner said the idea is to encourage as many people as possible to use clean energy in their homes and businesses. She said the city could opt to buy a much larger portion — up to 100 percent — of its power from renewable sources than Eversource, which is currently the default provider in Keene.

And by making customers opt out rather than opt in, she said, far more people are likely to participate.

“The highest participation rates get to be about 15 percent [with an opt-in program],” she said. “But with an opt-out program, it’s the opposite. About 85 percent will stay with it.”

Brunner said the first step was to establish an ad hoc community power committee, which the council approved on June 18. The committee had its first meeting earlier this month.

The second step is to have the committee develop a plan for implementing the program, which will ultimately have to be approved by the council after some degree of community input. Brunner said the city is weighing options for holding a public meeting, likely via videoconference due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

She said the goal is to submit the plan to the council in early 2021.

The community power program is a central strategy in the city’s efforts to transition entirely to renewable electricity by 2030 and renewable thermal and transportation energy sources by 2050. The plan was approved by the council in January 2019 as a nonbinding resolution that sets energy goals for the community as a whole.

The city recently launched a new website, keeneenergyplan.com, which contains a guide to Keene’s overall energy plan, as well as information about community power programs and how they’ve been implemented elsewhere. The website includes interviews with people who have been involved in establishing community power programs in Greenfield, Mass., and Medford, Mass.

Keene has been working with Carly Peruccio, a sustainability fellow at the University of New Hampshire, to help with community outreach for the energy plan. Peruccio has been conducting interviews about community power programs and posting them to the new website to help residents learn more about the concept.

In a July 7 post, Peruccio interviewed Carole Collins, energy and sustainability manager in Greenfield, Mass. Collins says the city has had a community power program for the past five years and so far, it’s been going well.

She said Greenfield works with a broker who secures its energy supply, and the city then decides whether it wants to purchase that supply.

Collins said customers have seen substantial savings. Comparing the city’s annual rate to the average of Eversource’s summer and winter rates, customers have saved about $1 million since the program went into effect, Collins said.

“So that’s over five years and it’s over thousands of customers but ... we’re offering them savings,” Collins said. “It might not be much, but at least it’s something. And the fact that it’s 100 percent green, I think people are really appreciative that they have this option.”

Eversource spokesman William Hinkle said the company does not oppose community power programs and has worked with several communities exploring such programs. He said the company supports solutions that keep energy costs low, improve reliability and advance clean energy.

“Just like we do for residential and commercial customers who choose alternative suppliers, we encourage our municipalities to evaluate their energy supply options to ensure that they’re paying the lowest possible cost,” he said.

This article has been changed to add information received from Eversource.


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NH drug treatment providers struggling financially amid pandemic

A new survey shows that the COVID-19 pandemic has been costly for drug treatment providers in New Hampshire.

The report, recently released by the nonprofit organization New Futures, surveyed 23 substance-use treatment providers statewide about how the pandemic has affected them in areas such as revenue and staffing.

Substantial financial losses were found across the board due to fewer patients coming in during the public health crisis, as well as canceled fundraising or income-driven events, according to President and CEO Michele Merritt.

Many of the organizations said this could lead to staffing reductions.And if the situation doesn’t improve, it could have serious implications for the state’s ability to fight the drug epidemic, according to Nelson Hayden of The Doorway in Keene.

Four of the organizations surveyed are from the Monadnock Region, Merritt said in an email.

None of the providers are identified in the report, and their names are not being released due to what New Futures spokesperson Bobbie Burgess described as an “unspoken understanding” that this information would be withheld.

The Concord-based health advocacy organization is calling on the governor’s office to allocate $15 million to $18 million to treatment and recovery organizations as part of the state’s pandemic relief initiative.

Merritt said the Monadnock Region already has a limited number of treatment providers, and reducing that capacity could mean longer wait times or prevent people from getting the services they need.

“The Monadnock Region, like other parts of the state, has worked for years to expand its substance use treatment and recovery services,” she said in the email. “The financial losses experienced by local providers threatens to undermine this progress and propel the region backwards in its fight against the addiction crisis.”

The respondents were surveyed in mid-May, and included small and large organizations, as well as independent providers.

Smaller organizations have between two to 10 employees, while large ones have 10 or more, the report says. An independent provider is the sole employee in a practice.

The report shows that more than 80 percent of the organizations that responded experienced an overall decrease in revenue from billing clients’ private and public insurers between January and April.

Medicaid billing accounted for a majority of that decrease, plummeting by nearly a quarter-million dollars from January to April across the 23 providers.

The month when providers were hit the hardest was April, just after Gov. Chris Sununu’s stay-at-home order was first issued, the data show. The drop in revenue from March to April averaged just over $20,000.

By October, the report projects, New Hampshire’s small and large providers — totaling 122, according to the survey — will have lost at least $6 million in insurance-billed revenue.

During that same period, New Futures predicts independent practitioners will have lost at least $446,485.

Hayden, executive director of Keene’s Doorway program, said insurance companies already don’t reimburse substance-use treatment at very high rates, so this sharp of a decline in billed revenue could lead to providers cutting services or shutting their doors altogether.

The Doorway — a grant-funded service opened in January 2019 and run by Cheshire Medical Center — is part of the state’s “hub and spoke” system to screen, assess and refer people to substance-use treatment and support services in the community.

And as a referral service, Hayden said, The Doorway has actually seen its numbers increase amid the pandemic, highlighting the need for drug treatment in the Monadnock Region.

But, since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak, he said, it has been drastically more difficult for The Doorway to find places to refer clients.

“Our mission of facilitating access to treatment for those suffering from substance use disorder has been greatly hampered by the closures, reductions in census, and inability to meet face to face with clients,” he said in an email. “Our ability to place clients in an appropriate level of care is impacted by the reduced availability.”

The New Futures report also found that more than 70 percent of organizations surveyed invested in new technology to keep clients safe during the pandemic, such as telehealth support, as well as glass barriers and cleaning supplies.

These investments had an average cost of $6,324.

Only nine of the 23 respondents said they spent money on personal protective equipment (PPE) by mid-May, likely due to many providers using telehealth services. The average amount those nine providers spent on PPE was about $3,000.

But as more entities reopen for in-person services, the survey says, New Futures expects the number of providers purchasing PPE to rise.

The loss of revenue and increased overhead costs due to COVID-19 left most respondents unable to hire staff from January to April.

Six of the providers had to lay off staff following the emergency order, two had to furlough staff, and one had to cut staff hours.

To survive through October, 12 of the 23 organizations surveyed said they will need to lay off or furlough additional staff.

Hayden, of The Doorway, said if the financial strain documented in the report continues at this rate, it could cause the state’s progress against the opioid crisis to backslide.

New Hampshire’s number of fatal overdoses skyrocketed starting in 2013 and 2014 as part of a nationwide epidemic and peaked in 2017 with a confirmed total of 490. Last year — with 415 reported by the state — marked the second year in a row that drug death numbers had dropped.

“This decrease was in part due to enhanced efforts to coordinate and implement various levels of treatment,” Hayden said via email. “If these services experience a 10-15-percent decline, how many more individuals may die?”


National_world
Pandemic likely to 'get worse before it gets better,' Trump says

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump walked to the lectern in the White House briefing room alone Tuesday, attempting single-handedly to hit the reset button on the public blame he is facing for not controlling the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Three months after he abandoned the daily virus briefings and attempted to turn the country’s attention to what he described as the “great American comeback,” Trump’s low-key reappearance before reporters seemed to be a tacit admission that his previous strategy had not worked.

Six months after the first coronavirus case was confirmed in the United States — and with almost four million confirmed infections — Trump’s attempt to re-engage with the crisis and embrace public-health guidelines marked a notable departure from his recent approach to the pandemic.

“We are in the process of developing a strategy that’s going to be very, very powerful,” Trump said Tuesday, reading from prepared remarks that did not include details of what the strategy would entail.

While Trump continued to showcase his trademark boosterism with repeated praise of his administration, he also appeared to acknowledge that the virus he once said would soon disappear continues to pose a serious threat to the country, as well as to his reelection chances.

“It will probably, unfortunately, get worse before it gets better,” he said during the 30-minute briefing in which he spoke in subdued tones, “something I don’t like saying about things, but that’s the way it is.”

That somber approach harked back to late March, when Trump warned of a “great national trial unlike any it has ever faced before” and predicted a “very painful two weeks” for the country.

That soberness did not last long; Trump spent much of April and May attacking governors who did not reopen their economies and resisting calls for the federal government to play a more central role in managing the crisis.

Public-health experts blame much of the country’s current predicament on that lack of leadership in those months — specifically pointing to Trump’s unwillingness to push face coverings and social distancing as he traveled the country holding rallies and mocking people who wore masks. Trump’s approval among the general public has also plummeted in recent months, with Americans giving him low marks for his leadership in crisis.

On the same day that his Democratic rival Joe Biden slammed him by saying “he’s quit on this country,” Trump attempted to use the revived daily briefing to prove otherwise. Trump used part of his time in the briefing room to push a public-health message that many lawmakers and medical experts have been requesting for months. He praised health-care workers for saving lives, largely avoided attacks on Democrats, and urged Americans to wear masks and stay away from crowded bars.

While he avoided some of the gaffes from his previous briefings and spent less time airing personal grievances, Trump still used the televised platform to break away from White House talking points and stir controversy. He contradicted press secretary Kayleigh McEnany’s claims that he gets tested multiple times a day for the virus, and he sent well wishes to a woman who has been accused of grooming Jeffrey Epstein’s underage victims and recruiting them to be sexually abused over several years.

“I just wish her well,” Trump said when asked about Ghislaine Maxwell, Epstein’s longtime companion who prosecutors say was an accomplice in his predation.

Trump’s decision to appear at the briefing without members of the coronavirus task force was itself a matter of controversy in the hours before the event. Fearing that the president might become distracted and unfocused without public-health officials in the room, several Republicans — and some White House officials — have called for the briefings to feature less Trump and more doctors.

But several top health officials in the administration did not know as of Tuesday morning whether they would be participating in the briefing alongside the president.

Appearing Tuesday on CBS News’s “This Morning,” U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams did not directly answer a question about whether high-profile members of the coronavirus task force would appear.

Asked by co-host Gayle King whether he, White House coronavirus response coordinator Deborah Birx or National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci would be in attendance, Adams said, “They’re still figuring that out.”

Shortly before the briefing, Fauci told CNN that he had not been invited.

During the briefings Trump headlined in March and April, the president regularly undercut or muddled the messaging from public-health officials. Trump, who rarely attended the coronavirus task-force meetings, would often show up for the televised briefings with a different set of talking points.

The president regularly pitched the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine as a “game changer” even as Fauci and others cautioned that it was untested and might not serve as an effective treatment. The Food and Drug Administration has since pulled its emergency-use authorization for the drug after some studies showed that it could lead to a higher risk of death.

Trump also used previous briefings to contradict health experts on face coverings, telling reporters in April that he did not plan to use one. Several administration officials, including Fauci, Birx and Adams, have pleaded with Americans to use masks when in public — a message ensnared in partisan politics as Trump has vacillated on whether face coverings are a vital public-health measure or a political statement.

The president appeared to reverse course on his mask skepticism on Monday, tweeting a picture of himself wearing a mask and writing that “many people say that it is Patriotic” to use a face covering when social distancing is not possible.

Given Trump’s long history of criticizing mask use — he told The Wall Street Journal in June that some Americans wore masks as a protest of him personally — some medical experts said they wished the president would model good public health by walking into the briefing room with his face covered.

“I genuinely hope the President wears a mask to the press briefing as a signal to the several million people watching on TV that wearing a mask is simple and important,” tweeted Rob Davidson, an emergency physician and executive director of the Committee to Protect Medicare, a national network of doctors that has lobbied against Trump. “At a minimum I hope he encourages all Americans to #maskup. A national mandate would be better.”

Trump did not wear a mask to the briefing, but he pulled one out of his pocket and — in a rare departure — did not equivocate as he called on Americans to use them.

“We’re asking everybody that when you are not able to socially distance, wear a mask, get a mask,” Trump said. “Whether you like the mask or not, they have an impact.”

Trump has long viewed the briefings as an opportunity to tout his handling of the pandemic and put a positive spin on the virus’s devastating toll. Even as daily deaths were spiking in March and April, Trump told reporters that his actions had actually saved millions of lives. He repeated the claim Tuesday.

Trump favorably compared the United States to other countries during the briefing, saying “we’ve done much better than most.”

In reality, the United States has performed far worse than most of the industrialized world in containing the spread of the virus. Cases in the United States have continued to spike in recent weeks, reaching records even as countries in Europe and elsewhere began to bring their outbreaks under control.

While Americans make up less than 5 percent of the global population, the United States accounts for almost a quarter of all deaths from the coronavirus.

Before the news conference, several previous White House press secretaries gave Trump public advice about how he should approach the briefing room.

Trump “should come out and present the update on what the government is doing in terms of fighting #COVID19 and getting economy open then walk off and allow other officials to provide additional updates and answer questions,” Sean Spicer, the first press secretary in the Trump White House, wrote Tuesday on Twitter.

He quoted a post from Ari Fleischer, press secretary in the George W. Bush White House, which called the briefings a “mistake” before going on to offer guidance.

“Be specific about what the Fed government is doing” and “Get out of the room within 30 minutes,” he wrote.

Sarah Sanders, who succeeded Spicer, told Fox News on Monday that Trump should remind people that he is doing everything he can to protect them from the virus.

“Do it in a way that’s compassionate — talk about how he cares about the people and remind them of that being the core of who he is,” she said.


National_world
White House, GOP in disarray over spending plan as benefit expiration nears

WASHINGTON — A major intra-party rift widened between the White House and Senate Republicans on Tuesday as they stumbled to formulate a unified coronavirus budget plan, lacking agreement on policy goals, budget parameters or even deadlines.

The Republican and White House positions changed multiple times as the day went on, with some GOP lawmakers refusing to rally behind the White House’s demand for a payroll tax cut while others worked to convince President Donald Trump’s emissaries that more money was needed for testing and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Other Republican lawmakers appeared mortified about the growing size of the spending bill, bickering over which policies to remove and warning that miscalculations could allow Democrats to seize control of the White House and the Senate in November.

“What in the hell are we doing?” Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, asked his colleagues at the lunch with White House officials, according to several participants who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the exchange. Cruz was incensed at the push among his colleagues to boost spending levels even more.

The whole process now appears likely to spill into August, something the White House and congressional Democrats had hoped to avoid, because it would mean more than 20 million Americans would lose emergency unemployment benefits when they expire at the end of this month. They have not mapped out a plan for what would happen to these people as the pandemic’s turmoil continues to weigh on the U.S. economy.

White House officials did not go into the talks with a preset strategy or a list of proposals that they knew GOP lawmakers would rally behind. This miscalculation created immediate problems. Numerous demands the White House had tried to formulate over the weekend were erased within hours.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Monday that the goal was to keep the spending bill at about $1 trillion, but by Tuesday he had abandoned that mantra. White House officials also backed away from demands for cuts to testing and health funds, and they retreated after a barrage of criticism of President Donald Trump’s tax cut demand.

“I think we’re going to spend what we need to spend, and we’re going to make sure we don’t spend more than that,” Mnuchin said.

Democrats pointed fingers at the Republican infighting and said the White House and GOP leaders were unprepared to handle the country’s mounting economic and health-care challenges. House Democrats passed a $3 trillion spending bill in May that would send another round of stimulus checks, provide more money to states and help hospitals, among other things, but the White House has vowed to block it.

“Republicans are in complete disarray,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said. “Totally incompetent. Totally in disarray. Totally at war with one another.”

In an effort to bridge differences, Mnuchin, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow met with Senate Republicans over lunch. But that led to little progress; Republicans made clear to Mnuchin and Meadows that they were not supportive of Trump’s insistence on a payroll tax cut or curbed funding for coronavirus tests and the CDC. Mnuchin on Monday had insisted that the payroll tax idea was in the bill, but he did not bring it up during the lunch as the opposition snowballed, two people briefed on the interaction said.

“We haven’t reached a conclusion on anything,” Sen. John Neely Kennedy, R-La., said when the lunch ended.

Meadows acknowledged the discontent, telling reporters, “Well, as you can imagine, any time you have Senate Republicans there, you have a number of different thoughts on what should or should not happen.”

The White House and Senate Republican leaders had tried over the weekend to put together a joint deal to bring to Democrats, but those efforts did not lead to a unified GOP position. Talks bogged down over Trump’s insistence for the tax cut, something he has pushed since last year to force into law without any success. Some also bristled at Trump’s insistence for curbing coronavirus testing funds and a new requirement that aid to schools would be contingent on reopening plans.

Underlying the confusion surrounding the GOP stimulus package are tensions among Trump administration officials about their priorities.

Trump is being represented on Capitol Hill by Mnuchin and Meadows, a tandem that has not brokered a deal jointly with Congress. Trump has for months worried privately that Mnuchin, his chief negotiator with Democrats, was giving away too much to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., leading conservative lawmakers to push for Meadows to have a more active role in this round of talks. Before joining the White House, Meadows was a congressman and leader of the conservative House Freedom Caucus. Mnuchin, meanwhile, has a background as a banker and a Hollywood producer with few ties to the conservative movement.

On Tuesday, Meadows sat toward the back of the room and deferred to Mnuchin as he led the conversation with the GOP senators, according to two people aware of the meeting who spoke on the anonymity to share private conversations. Mnuchin discussed the importance of sending another round of stimulus checks and providing more money for the Paycheck Protection Program.

Mnuchin also told reporters that it was important for lawmakers to reach an agreement before the supplemental increase in unemployment benefits runs out by the end of this month. Republican lawmakers, including Trump, have consistently criticized that benefit increase because they think it makes it more lucrative for workers to stay home than reenter the labor market, but Mnuchin stressed the importance of providing some financial cushion for the jobless.

“Our objective is to try to get something done before the enhanced unemployment insurance expires. There’s a lot of people who are still out of work,” Mnuchin said. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told reporters, though, that it was very unlikely a deal would be reached by the end of next week, laughing and saying no when asked whether that was possible.

Within a few hours Tuesday, it became clear that the White House was already backpedaling on several demands — before negotiations with Democrats had begun. Mnuchin and Meadows met with Senate Republican appropriators in the morning and appeared persuaded to reverse course on the funding curbs; Republicans had sought $25 billion for states for testing and tracing that the administration had initially opposed.

“We’re moving in the right direction on all fronts ... We are making good progress,” said Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., a senior Appropriations Committee member, when asked about the disagreement over money for testing.

Participants said that talks were ongoing, and that nothing had been finalized.

White House spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany said Tuesday that the White House is seeking “targeted” money for testing, and that “we’re willing to put in money for targeted testing that makes sense, not just dumping money into a pot that contains $10 billion.”

Some experts said lawmakers should approve more money and have the administration send it out quicker.

“States have been using some of this money, but the problem is that it’s not enough and easy for the states to draw down,” said Sam Hammond, a policy expert at the Niskanen Center, a think tank that has been working with Senate Republicans on bolstering testing. “The scale of the problem will require a lot more money than they have so far.”

These programs are just one part of what the administration and McConnell had envisioned as a $1 trillion package that is likely to be the last major coronavirus relief bill before the election.

After attending the Senate Republican conference lunch, the White House envoys met with Pelosi and Schumer.

“We will begin our conversations today. It is my hope that we can resolve our differences and have a bill by the end of next week,” Pelosi told fellow Democrats on a conference call Tuesday morning, according to a person on the call who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the person was not authorized to discuss internal conversations.

There has been little GOP enthusiasm for the payroll tax cut plan, even though Trump has said he might not sign a bill that does not include it. And GOP leaders are expecting a hard sell Tuesday but appear unwavering. A few Senate Republicans — including Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Steve Daines of Montana — have endorsed the payroll tax cut as a sound policy.

But senators and aides said Mnuchin did not talk about the payroll tax cut during the Senate GOP lunch. Instead he was confronted by complaints about the size of the emerging package, with some lawmakers who had voted for the $2 trillion Cares Act in March saying they could not support the new package if it exceeds $1 trillion.

During the lunch, GOP senators voiced discontent over several components of the emerging aid package, whether it involved provisions pushed by the administration and the apparently ballooning size of the plan, according to officials directly familiar with the private gathering. All of the officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the closed-door discussion.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, argued against the payroll tax cut, making the case that no voters would notice the tax relief and that he was skeptical that the policy changes could even be implemented before October.

Although the payroll tax cut remains a top priority for Trump, his top lieutenants inside the meeting made little apparent effort to sell the policy to Republican senators, who largely remain opposed to the proposal.

Electoral politics were also in consideration. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., urged other GOP senators to be attentive to what Republicans in competitive reelection bids are hearing on the ground from voters, and he made the case that if the GOP loses the majority, Democrats in control will implement policies that are much more costly to the national debt. So spending a bit more money now in a rescue bill that would aid Republicans in their races would be cheaper in the long run, he argued. Cotton is also up for reelection in November but is not considered to be in a competitive race.

His viewpoint appeared to clash with that of Cruz, who vigorously warned against spending too much money on the package.

Cruz said the GOP should be focused on a safe restart of the economy and warned that if the economy remains shuttered in November, Democrats will win both the White House and the Senate, and that Republican senators, who usually meet in the ornate Mansfield room in the Capitol, will “be meeting in a much smaller lunch room.”

Mnuchin, who met with Republican senators before he was to huddle with the Democratic leaders, stressed to the GOP lawmakers that he will not launch into negotiations Tuesday afternoon with Democrats and that he would be in more of a listening mode with them.

Earlier Tuesday, McConnell gave some details of the emerging GOP plan in remarks on the Senate floor.

He said it would include $105 billion to help schools reopen, another round of funding for the Paycheck Protection Program for small businesses, more stimulus checks to individual Americans, incentives for hiring and retaining workers, and reimbursement for businesses to establish safety measures.

“The American job market needs another shot of adrenaline,” McConnell said. “Senate Republicans are laser-focused on getting American workers their jobs back.”

Trump has enacted four laws that provided close to $3 trillion in new tax cuts and spending to try to help the economy and the health-care industry navigate the coronavirus pandemic. The economy remains weak, however, with an unemployment rate of 11.1 percent and about 20 million people collecting unemployment benefits. Lawmakers are split over what to do next. When he was heading into a meeting with Senate appropriators, Meadows was asked about the highest price tag they could agree to.

“Obviously everybody looks at a trillion-dollar stimulus plan as the goal, but that’s going to be up to the senators and the House,” Meadows said. “It’s going to be a Senate- and House-led process.”

Mnuchin said he would be there to see the talks through, having been through numerous rounds of frantic negotiations in the past.

“We’re shooting to get something done by the end of next week,” Mnuchin told reporters as he entered his first meeting. “I’ll be here for the next two weeks until we get this done.”